At the recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping, forcefully re-asserted China’s seemingly unquestionable sovereignty over the island of Taiwan and, therefore, its right to annex it by force if necessary.
This followed the recent visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan which raised tensions in the South China sea to unprecedented levels. Although the respective fleets of China, Taiwan, the USA and NATO forces have yet to square up to each other, it is a scenario that is already in the planning pipeline. In the days preceding China’s missile barrage around Taiwanese waters, the head of the French Navy, Admiral Pierre Vandier, openly boasted of a coalition of Western forces being able to conquer China's fleet.
Whilst pointing the finger at Chinese naval expansion, Vandier neglected to mention the significant enlargement of US and UK naval forces and exercises in the region. British rearmament is central to this and was demonstrated by the entrance into the region of high-powered UK maritime strike force in July of last year. This was the largest concentration of maritime and airpower to leave the UK in a generation.
As China responded to the Pelosi visit with a series of military operations simulating an assault on Taiwan, the Biden administration approved more than $1.1 billion in arms sales to the Taiwanese government, the largest yet during his time in office. With further unprecedented packages of military aid costing nothing to the Taiwanese government, Washington is now edging towards jettisoning the World War II division of spoils which first granted Chinese sovereignty over the island. The basis of this was established at the 1943 Cairo conference where Churchill, Rosevelt and Chinese Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai-shek, agreed to the annexation of Taiwan in return for China’s continued cooperation in the war against Japan.
According to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – almost 250 times the existing global annual output for 2020. Currently, an estimated $3.37 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually, accounting for a third of the global maritime trade.
In addition to China, whose exports constitute a huge part of the region’s global commerce, there are the competing interests of Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei, all of which are major platforms for multinational corporations, banking and stock market operations.
Chinese imperialism’s attempt to assert its hegemony in the region, is represented by its territorial claims not just over Taiwan but also over the Spratly Islands, whose vast oceanic spread and its associated fishing, mineral and navigational rights has made this sprawling archipelago the center of fierce regional disputes and continental rivalries.
This has thrown into sharp relief the legacy of China’s previous status as an imperial power and the implications of this for oppressed nationalities on the mainland itself. Taking a correct stance on this issue is a crucial question not just for 100s of millions of working people in the region but for the labour movement internationally.
The myth of one China
As part of asserting their regional hegemony, the capitalist rulers in China have set sail on a markedly nationalist discourse, seeking to resurrect the myth of “one China” whilst extolling the virtues of its ancient imperial past. At the center of this is the notion that Taiwan has always been part of China and should become so again. However, even a cursory examination of Chinese history, including the historical stance of the CCP itself on this matter, makes this an extremely dubious proposition.
Prior to the 20th Century, there was no modern nation-state in China. Its territorial borders were in constant flux subject to the outcome of battles between competing dynasties, whose imperial emperors sought to expand or defend their respective fiefdoms. It is in this context that we should look at the claims made by Beijing that Taiwan has historically been part of China.
In its early history, Taiwan was colonised by the Dutch and given the name Formosa. The Dutch were subsequently expelled by an expeditionary force led by Zheng Chenggong. Far from being a “national hero”, as Beijing now portrays him, Chenggong was little more than a pirate and military chieftain, whose occupation of Taiwan formed part of military operation to defend his territories.
Eventually, Chenggong submitted to Qing dynasty and together they proceeded to rule parts of the island for the next 200 years. However, while the Qing empire succeeded in expanding China’s frontiers, its rule in Taiwan was both fragmentary and highly unstable.
Despite significant immigration into Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, Beijing’s two-hundred-year rule over the island’s coastal regions was plagued by an almost constant wave of insurgency, marked by more than a hundred rebellions between 1683 to 1895. Following the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894-1895, the island was then ceded in perpetuity to Japanese rule. This proved to be part of China’s definitive imperial decline, marked by the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901 and the Wuchang uprising of 1911-12 which signaled the dynasty’s complete collapse.
Nevertheless, it was during the Qing period that the ruling feudal overlords in China conquered new territory and began the oppression of other nationalities which continue to form part of the current Chinese state. The most notable of these was Tibet, Mongolia and the northwest region of Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang, where the Uyghur and other Muslim peoples have lived for centuries.
Like Czarist Russia, China was and remains a prison house of nations. This historical fact was recognised as such by the CCP at its Second Congress in 1922 where it advocated the following solution to the national question:
“China proper (including Manchuria) be a true democratic republic and that the three regions of Mongolia, Tibet and Turkestan be autonomous, forming democratic, self-governing regions; China, Mongolia, Tibet and Turkestan would then unite on the basis of their own free will, thereby establishing a Chinese Federal Republic.”
At the Sixth Congress of the CCP in 1928, other minorities such as the Koreans in Manchuria, and the aboriginal Miao and Li peoples in the south, were added to the list of distinct nationalities. Also included were the Taiwanese, but this referred to the Taiwanese residents in the province of Fukien (now Fujian) on the southern coast of the Chinese mainland, not to the island of Taiwan itself.
This policy was developed further at the first All-China Soviet Congress in 1931, where the following proclamation was approved:
“The Soviet government of China recognizes the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to complete separation from China, and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority. All Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans, and others living on the territory of China shall enjoy the full right to self-determination, i.e., they may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own state as they may prefer.”
Taiwan was not included in this proclamation, for the simple reason that the CCP at that time and over many years, from 1928 to 1943, considered the island to be outside of China’s territorial jurisdiction. At that time, Taiwan was colonised by Japan, and the position of Mao Tse-tung and the CCP was to support its struggle for independence, against Japanese imperialism but never on the condition that it formed part of China.
This exclusion of the Taiwanese liberation movement as an intrinsic element of the Chinese revolution was made explicit by Mao in a statement to the American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936:
"It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall. This means that Manchuria must be regained. We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have re-established the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Formosa.” [Taiwan – author, emphasis added].
Even as late as 1941, the future Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, bracketed Taiwan with a series of national liberation struggles in the region:
“We should sympathise with the independence-liberation movements of other nation- states. We will not only assist the anti-Japanese movements of Korea or Taiwan …......but also sympathise with the national liberation movements of India and various South Asian countries”
In practice, the CCP stood this policy on its head and, upon assuming power in 1949, it reverted to a one-China policy extolling the virtues of an allegedly territorial integrity based upon the Qing empire. By that time, Taiwan had been ceded to China as part of the carve-up of the colonial world by the Allied forces during and after the Second World War.
China today is a heterogeneous, multi-national state, dominated by a ruling capitalist class drawn from the majority Han Chinese population. Within its current territorial boundaries are more than 125 million people comprising 56 non-Han minorities including many non-Chinese language groupings such as the Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongolians and Koreans.
Whilst the constitution provides for formal autonomy and recognition of their distinctive identity, the Chinese state has ruled with an iron fist in crushing nationalist rebellions and carrying out a process of assimilation by suppressing local customs, religion and languages; most significantly in Tibet and Xinjiang, but also in Inner Mongolia where the minority Mongol population has come under attack.
When the ruling elite of the once mighty Mongol empire fractured into rival fiefdoms, it paved the way for imperial China to conquer this vast East Asian country and divide it into two administrative regions, one of which, Inner Mongolia, was later occupied by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949 and remains part of China to this day.
Like everywhere else in the colonies exploited by Western imperialism, the post-World War II division of spoils conditioned the new territorial borders of East and Southeast Asia. In the case of Mongolia, an agreement was reached, between the troika of Churchill-Truman-Stalin, to accept the independence of one part of Mongolia at the expense of the majority of Mongolians who lived in Inner Mongolia which was conceded to the Chinese.
To secure this territory, the Maoist regime accelerated a long-standing policy of colonial settlement, displacing the indigenous Mongols both socially and numerically. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, this entailed a frontal assault on the Mongol people in which at least 22,000 Mongols were killed, and Buddhism, their predominant religion, was crushed.
This historical colonisation of Mongolia has led to the ethnic Mongols becoming a minority within their own land. Today they number around six million people, constituting the vast majority of all ethnic Mongols in both Outer and Inner Mongolia, but representing just 18 percent of the population within the region controlled by China. As with the Uyghurs and Tibetans, this forms part of a consistent policy of internal colonialism whereby the indigenous people have increasingly been driven off the vast, mineral-rich grasslands into urban settlements where their social and cultural heritage is becoming ever more diluted.
The repurposing of the grasslands has opened up a new wave of relentless capitalist exploitation of Inner Mongolia’s rare-earth, coal, gold and natural gas resources. Between 2000-2011, Inner Mongolia’s coal production alone experienced a thirteen-fold growth, with the province accounting for approximately one quarter of the country’s entire domestic supply. In 2021, despite the commitment to Cop26 carbon emission targets, Beijing insisted that 72 mines in the region increase their coal production by a further fifty percent.
Inner Mongolia’s status as a servant to Chinese capitalism’s overall energy needs, is also represented by its fifty-three coal-fired power stations, whose flagship, The Great Wall thermal power plant, occupies 500 acres and is due to come into service in 2023 with an estimated annual consumption of 5.15 million tonnes of coal. As Prof Yuan Jiahai from the North China Electric Power University commented: “in general, as a base for coal and coal-fired power, Inner Mongolia will continue to shoulder the tasks of sending out power [to other places] on a large scale”
Coal production is also used to fuel Inner Mongolia’s iron and steel industries which are amongst the largest in China. This in turn has had devastating ecological consequences, including extensive deforestation and desertification. Many parts of the once rich, green grasslands have now been transformed into a lunar landscape by mega, open-cast mining operations.
In tandem with this industrial exploitation, the capitalist market economy had led to a massive overload of agricultural exploitation, with the number of livestock almost tripling, from 25 million in 1990 to nearly 70 million in 2020. According to some reports, at least 73.5 percent of the grassland in Inner Mongolia has been degraded. It is a pattern that can be seen on an even broader scale in Xinjiang and Tibet.
The Mongols’ displacement and destruction of the grasslands’ natural environment, at the behest of Chinese transnationals, has had a profoundly disturbing impact on Mongol identity. The grasslands not only remind the Mongolians of their ancient history, but evoke an entirely different rhythm of life associated with their nomadic homes, herds, and the open environment of the more communal grasslands. The displacement of Mongolians from this historical terrain into urban centers is more than just a process of social and economic dislocation; it also transforms a foundational part of Mongolian cultural identity.
A crucial element of this is the negative pressure on the Mongol language. Whereas Mongol was the dominant language in rural areas, there is little need or incentive to speak or even learn it in their new environment. Most residents in Han-dominant urban centers in Inner Mongolia use Mandarin and, in order to access educational, professional and job opportunities, Mongolians are increasingly obliged to speak Mandarin. This erosion of their language was reflected in a steep decline in the number of Inner Mongolians attending Mongolian language-based schools, a fall from nearly 60% in 1990 to just over 30% in 2020.
This decline has since been hastened by a new law in 2020 eliminating the use of Mongolian as the language of instruction in schools for history, politics, language and literature subjects. The measure provoked a wave of protests by students and parents, including a school boycott, but this was suppressed through a series of reprisals, arrests and the threat of severe sanctions against families that failed to comply with the new edict.
The CCP’s earlier reference to Turkestan was acknowledgment of the fact that the Uyghurs were a distinct nationality, whose language, religion, and social norms formed part of an ethnic grouping comprehensively distinct from the Han Chinese. The CCP’s original support for Turkestan’s right of self-determination coincided with multiple insurgencies in the region, culminating in the short-lived establishment of the East Turkestan Republic in 1933. Eventually, the CCP performed a crude and shameful volte face, with a 2019 legislative decree claiming that Turkestan never existed and had always been part of China.
When the nationalist insurgency was crushed in 1934, the province was renamed Xinjiang, a name retained by the CCP albeit as part of the more broadly designated Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Thenceforward, the national oppression of the Uyghurs assumed new depths, with Beijing occupying the role of colonist and usurping any meaningful expression of sovereignty.
In reality, there was and is nothing “autonomous” about the region: there is no directly elected assembly or self-government, and more than ninety percent of all important political, administrative and economic institutions are staffed by Han Chinese employees. For instance, the ruling Regional Party Standing Committee, has 15 members of whom only three are Uyghurs and ten are Han Chinese. Similar proportions are in evidence in the region’s Communist Party Central Committee and the Peoples Regional Government.
In 1953, at the time of the first census, over 75 per cent of the total population in the region was constituted by Uyghurs. Ethnic Han Chinese accounted for only seven per cent. According to the latest census, while the overall population of both Han and Uyghur ethnic groups has grown, the Uyghur population now constitutes about 45 per cent of the region’s total and Han Chinese about 42 per cent.
This is the culmination of a long process of settlement and displacement of the indigenous population, a process described by anthropologist Darren Byler, in his book, Terror Capitalism:
“It was not until the 1990s, as China developed a market economy oriented to global capitalism, that the Uyghur majority areas of southern Xinjiang—where Uyghurs represented more than 90 percent of the population—became the target of an internal settler colonial project. While previously the state had established isolated settler colonies in the northern part of the region, it was only when global market and the state incentivized mass migration into Uyghur majority areas that the major features of a settler colony - dispossession of Uyghur land and way of life, domination of Uyghur institutions such as the mosque, schools, and banks, and settler occupation - began to emerge. It was during this period that the oil and natural gas reserves of the region became the focus of profit-oriented state-owned or managed corporations. Since then, Xinjiang has become the source of around 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It has an even higher percentage of China’s coal reserves and now produces around 20 percent of the world’s cotton and tomatoes.”
Instrumental to this process was a Beijing paramilitary organisation known as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). This was formed initially by demobilised units of the PLA in the 1950s. Its militarised production garrisons soon grew to become the founding platforms for Han Chinese settlements . The remit of the XPCC was then expanded to implement the large-scale internment and forced labour programmes that have become so notorious in the last ten years.
As a paramilitary organization, the XPCC currently employs reservists and roughly 100,000 militia. It cooperates closely with People’s Armed Police forces and is responsible for policing prisons and labor camps. Originally focused on agriculture and construction, it has become a huge conglomerate which now operates a range of capitalist corporations spanning many industries.
The goods produced by the XPCC reach far into global supply chains, and XPCC construction projects operate not only in the XUAR but throughout China and across Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In other words, the XPCC is instrumental in both the national oppression and the capitalist exploitation of the region.
One outstanding example of this is the region’s cotton industry.
China produces roughly 22 percent of the world's cotton, of which 87.3 percent –equivalent to 5.2 million tons – comes from Xinjiang. Besides massive exports, China itself is the world's largest consumer of cotton and related textile products. The XPCC has played a crucial role in dragooning Uyghur farmers into semi-militarised cotton-picking brigades and has an estimated Uyghur workforce in the region of half a million. A recent policy document decreed that cotton pickers must be transported in groups and accompanied by officials who “eat, live, study and work with them, actively implementing thought education during cotton picking”
This economic exploitation of Uyghur labour goes hand-in-glove with a monstruous regime of repression justified in the name of fighting Islamic extremism and terrorism. A crucial pillar of this repression are the dozens of internment camps, portrayed by Beijing as “vocational training centres”, where Uyghurs are held without trial and “re-educated” for assimilation into Han Chinese social and cultural practices as well as fealty to the CCP and the state. This is accompanied by an Islamophobic campaign which seeks to sideline and stigmatise the Uyghur language as well as standard Islamic customs of dress, eating and religious worship.
There has also been a massive legal crackdown under the auspices of the 2014 Strike Hard Campaign, initiated supposedly against violent terrorism. The number of people sentenced under this new legislation rose to nearly a quarter of a million in 2017 with a further 540,826 people being prosecuted since then. If indeed there were over half a million terrorists amongst the Uyghur population, this would be a terrible indictment of Beijing’s rule in the area. Imagine how many more “terrorists” there must be aspiring to independence!
Tibet and Xinjiang between them comprise 1.5 million square miles, amounting to almost half of the territory of the Chinese state. Besides possessing huge reserves of carbon and mineral resources, the two areas mark China’s western and northern borders with India, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Russia. The three regions of Greater Tibet alone account for nearly one million square miles, The historical territory of Tibet would make it the world’s 10th largest nation by geographical area.
Tibet was also incorporated into the territorial borders of the Qing imperial dynasty, but with an even more tenuous administration and control than was exercised over Taiwan. When the dynasty collapsed in 1911, Tibet seized the opportunity to expel all Chinese troops and officials to become an independent nation. Apart from a British military expedition, it remained so for almost 50 years until the Chinese revolution. By that time, the CCP had long since abandoned its policy on self-determination, insisting now upon the unitary character of the Chinese state based on Qing imperial borders.
On 7th October, 1950, 40,000 PLA troops occupied the eastern Tibetan city of Chamdo, crushing the tiny Tibetan army and forcing the Dalai Lama’s government into negotiations. The resulting conquest led to the annexation of Tibet, with two (Kham and Amdo) out of the three provinces being incorporated into Chinese provinces known today as: Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. The third province, commonly referred to as Tibet, has been renamed the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TARC) and is centered on the capital city of Lhasa.
From that point onwards, more than at any time in its history, Tibet became an oppressed nation; serving firstly the interests of a rapacious bureaucracy in Beijing and, more recently as prisoner to the interests of Chinese capitalism.
The 1950 occupation of Tibet by the PLA was never intended to liberate its people from theocratic and feudal oppression. As part of Mao’s class collaborationist strategy, no attempt was made to mobilise the impoverished serfs who were vassals of a reactionary feudal landowning class. Indeed, such was the opportunist character of the CCP, that they entered into an agreement with this class to leave their privileges intact in return for facilitating a peaceful occupation of the capital city, Lhasa, by the PLA, dissolving the Tibetan Army and accepting Chinese sovereignty over the Tibetan nation.
As the writer, Melvyn Goldstein observed:
“No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants.”
In 1955, Mao’s prime minister Zhou Enlai, went so far as to assure the Dalai Lama that if Tibet was still not ready for agrarian reform, the waiting period “could be extended for another 50 years”.
While courting the Tibetan elite within the TARC, a full six years later, Beijing proceeded with its policy of forced collectivisation against Tibetans in Kham and Ando which were now under direct rule. In response to this, hundreds of rebellions broke out, with over 10,000 Tibetans being killed. Eventually the insurgency spread into the TARC itself, leading to the 1959 uprising which was brutally crushed by the PLA.
After the Dalai Lama led an exodus of nearly 100,000 refugees to India, Beijing executed a 180-degree turn in Tibet: in place of the strategic alliance with the Tibetan elite, Beijing began a policy of expropriation. Once again, this was not based upon mobilising the Tibetan masses; rather, it was executed from the top down, with the aid of large numbers of Han Chinese bureaucrats who were drafted into Tibet to implement the new policy.
Thus began a policy which assumed genocidal proportions the so-call Cultural Revolution when more than 97 per cent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, and the resident monks and nuns being forcibly removed. Tibetan language, dress, customs and habits were all labelled backward and filthy and those who continued to display them were subject to public humiliation. Religious texts and books were labeled as “poisonous weeds” and burned, thrown in the river or mixed with dung. The only book with authorized circulation at that time was the Little Red Book containing quotations from Chairman Mao. Mao himself issued an edict forcing monks and nuns to marry each other or be sent to labour camps along with others who refused to toe the line.
By the time the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in September 1976, more than 6,000 monasteries and religious institutions in Tibet lay in ruins. Millions of ancient and priceless manuscripts were burnt. Statues made of gold, silver, or bronze were removed from the temples and shipped to China. Names of streets, roads, shops, villages and even personal names were rewritten in Chinese. According to some Tibetan sources, at least 92,000 Tibetans who were subjected to “struggle sessions” died or committed suicide, with a further 173,000 dying in prison or in labour camps.
The Cultural Revolution had nothing to do with either culture or with revolution. The horrific methods used in Tibet were also used to place a chokehold on all of China’s workers and peasants, as well as strangling any dissenting intellectuals. However, for Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongolians, it was first and foremostly a frontal assault against their very existence as distinct nationalities.
It was this policy of cultural genocide which fueled the movement to free Tibet. Whilst Washington and others sought to leverage this to its own advantage, their support was minimal and relatively short lived. If anything, it only served to tarnish the image of the Tibetan liberation struggle and played into the hands of Beijing.
As in the rest of China, the Cultural Revolution was a complete disaster and led to the near ruination of the Tibetan economy. By 1980, Beijing began to back track and initiate a process of Tibetanisation whereby the Han population in Tibet was reduced by over 40 percent and large numbers of bureaucrats were repatriated. Their replacements were drawn overwhelmingly from the educated former Tibetan elite, traditional clan chiefs and nobles, to the extent that, by 1989, they comprised 66 per cent of the regional bureaucracy. Even then, however, key posts such as Secretary of the CCP in the region were appointed by Beijing, as were the commanders of the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) who were invariably Han Chinese.
These minor reforms were too little, too late and fell far short of the “middle way” proposals by the Dalai Lama, calling for “genuine self-rule within China”. The Beijing regime’s hostility to any real form of autonomy, resulted in a further wave of nationalist protests culminating in the March 1989 uprising. In what proved to be a forerunner of Tiananmen Square, this uprising was brutally crushed and martial law was imposed with the arrival of an estimated 60,000 Chinese troops and police to enforce the crackdown. Hundreds of deaths were reported and thousands more were arrested.
In the twenty years that have elapsed since then, Beijing has trumpeted the province’s apparent economic progress. According to the White Paper published by the central government in 2009 to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the "Democratic Reform in Tibet," a modern Tibetan industry has developed with mining, construction, petroleum and gas coming to the fore. This coincided with the discovery in Tibet of over $100 billion worth of mineral resources including the world’s fifth-largest deposits of uranium and the largest of China’s deposits of copper, a discovery that has lured several of China’s burgeoning capitalist corporations including the Aluminum Corp of China, the world’s third-largest primary aluminium producer. There are huge profits to be made both in the export sector and in servicing the rest of China’s booming capitalist economy.
In essence, it can be said that the last 30 years have witnessed the conquest of Tibet by a rampaging Chinese capitalist class intent upon pillaging the nation’s land and mineral resources to service its needs at home and abroad. It is as simple as that, and closely parallels the bloody conquest of ancestral lands and indigenous properties carried out by their American and Australian predecessors against the aboriginal and native American populations. It is a type of internal colonialism, driven by naked class interests.
Statistics are hard to verify, with reports ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of nomads in all regions of Tibet being forcibly removed from the grasslands in order to make way for huge mining projects, mega hydro-damns, roads, bridges and other infrastructural projects supporting capitalist exploitation of this immense, oil and mineral- rich plateau.
In all, some 240 mining cavities have replaced former nomadic sites, with open cast mining employing mostly Han Chinese workers, causing significant damage to the local eco system and in some cases destroying areas of ancient Tibetan worship.
For the Tibetan masses, this so-called economic progress is a social catastrophe, resulting in the loss of their traditional livelihoods and way of life. Hundreds of thousands have been herded into the Tibetan equivalent of tribal reservations; ghettoes of concrete housing blocks with few social amenities, sparse land for grazing and even less opportunities to earn a decent living.
The economic boom is primarily an urban phenomenon, largely bypassing the rural areas where 80 percent of the Tibetan population live. It is within these urban centers where most of the Han Chinese immigrants have settled, and it is they who enjoy greater access to the top jobs in both the private and state-run sectors. Although it is still a small minority, the Han Chinese population in the TAR has almost doubled in the last 10 years, encouraged by what is called the “Tibetan premium”, an incentive that guarantees them a series of privileges in health, education and salaries. In terms of salaries alone, the average wage in the TAR is nearly double the national average, represented above all by the premium paid to Han Chinese workers.
The new millennium brought with it an attempt by the Dalai Lama to enter into negotiations with Beijing. In place of Tibetan independence, he proposed “a middle way” of devolution offering some form of “genuine self-rule" within China. This reflected two things; firstly, that support from Washington and other capitalist governments had waned and, secondly, a conciliationist pressure arising from a new privileged elite nurtured by the Tibetan state bureaucracy.
The futility of these negotiations simply added fuel to the burning resentment against Beijing. The tensions exploded in March 2008 following a declaration by the Dalai Lama that six years of negotiations had led nowhere. It began, predictably enough, with monks from the Sera monastery in Lhasa taking to the streets in his support, a protest which was met with tear gas, cattle prods, then live ammunition.
The protests spread across the TAR, and more importantly, across the rest of the plateau. The government admitted to killing demonstrators in the towns of Luhuo and Aba in Sichuan province. In Gansu province, the BBC reported that high school students led a major uprising in the town of Huezo. The Guardian newspaper’s website showed footage of several thousand youngsters demonstrating in Xiah, where they were tear-gassed by police.
“In fact, the situation today,” noted Wang Lixiong in the April 10 edition of The Economist, “is more volatile than during the unrest in the late 1980s. The last major unrest in Tibet in 1987 and the riots of 1989 when martial law was imposed were limited to the capital of Lhasa and involved only monks, intellectuals and students,’ he says. ‘But today’s unrest has spread to other Tibetan areas and to people from all walks.”
Spanning four weeks of continuous protests, it was reported that between 60-80 Tibetans were killed by armed cops and at least four more were executed on charges of arson. Monasteries were ransacked and over 600 monks were arrested. The brutal repression that followed was to be expected, with further widescale arrests, imprisonment, torture and blanket surveillance aimed at crushing the slightest manifestation of dissent.
These policies include replacing the Tibetan language with Chinese as the language of instruction in schools; sending some 21,000 Chinese party officials into Tibetan monasteries to keep an eye on monks; forcing monks to denounce the Dalai Lama; banning the display of the Dalai Lama’s photograph; having a heavy armed police presence in Tibetan towns, villages and around monasteries; closing monasteries, and clamping down on demonstrators with arrests and shootings by police officers.
Following a similar model of mass coercion to that used against the Uyghurs, the capitalist government has rolled out a new programme of forced labour targetting Tibet’s rural population.
“Chinese authorities are dramatically expanding a mass labour programme in Tibet,” reported The Guardian in August 2020, “which analysts have compared to alleged forced labour operations in Xinjiang, according to evidence compiled by a German anthropologist and corroborated by Reuters.
“The documents include a Tibetan regional government notice which said 15% of the population – more than 500,000 people – had gone through the training programme in the first seven months of this year, with almost 50,000 transferred to jobs inside Tibet and thousands sent to other regions to work in low-paid jobs such as textile manufacturing and construction.”
The attempted pacification of Tibet and its subjugation to the interests of Chinese capital, forms part of a grander imperial project of consolidating existing colonial boundaries and, in the case of Taiwan and the Spratly Islands, establishing new ones that extend Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia as a whole.
Taiwan today is a modern capitalist nation that is ranked the eighth largest in Asia and the eighteenth largest in the world. It is a net exporter of capital, including a significant portfolio of Foreign Direct Investment in mainland China which is also its largest trading partner.
In one of history's ironic twists of fate, it became so as a result of the defeat of the bourgeois nationalist army of the Kuomintang who fled to Taiwan and occupied it under the auspices of the 1953 Cairo agreement. Following the massacre of more than 20,000 people who rose up against the Kuomintang forces, a regime of martial law and marginalisation of Taiwanese culture and language was instituted and lasted from 1947 to 1992. It is a period universally described as the White Terror.
During that time, the Kuomintang erected a regime of tariff barriers and state control to protect a fledgling capitalist economy. As part of this state capitalist project – similar to that of Nasser in Egypt but without the anti-imperialist demagogy – the emerging working class in Taiwan was harnessed to state-controlled trades unions represented by the Chinese Federation of Labour. It was only with the privatisation of Taiwan’s state-owned enterprises at the turn of the century, coinciding with the emergence of capitalism on the Chinese mainland itself, that independent trades unions began to emerge.
Taiwan today is not an oppressed, semi-colonial country, which typically serves as an export platform or manufacturing base for overseas multi-national enterprises. It has its own capitalist industry, particularly in the manufacturing of semiconductors, electronic equipment and financial services sectors, which now occupy prominent positions in both the Fortune 500 and Forbes 2000 lists of global enterprises. Moreover, a large part of Taiwanese capital’s portfolio of overseas investments is to be found in low-wage economies including Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and China itself where the Taiwanese firm Hon Hai, known as Foxconn, services the manufacture of global brands such as Apple, NIntendo, Nokia, Sony and many others. In 20201 alone, Foxconn posted annual revenues of almost 6 trillion Taiwanese dollars.
At the same time, Taiwan has begun to import hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam into low-paid jobs in manufacturing and construction where they labour under the same squalid conditions as those of the migrant workers employed by Foxconn on the Chinese mainland.
Taiwan is, de facto if not de jure, an independent, sovereign state and is recognised as such by Washington. It has its own government, judiciary, armed forces and state bureaucracy, which are entirely independent of Beijing, albeit subject to continuous pressure and selective sanctions.
Historically, Beijing followed a policy of peaceful co-existence with the despotic government of the Kuomintang in Taiwan. Whilst retaining its claim of sovereignty over the island, it has promoted and benefited from cross-straits trade and investment at the expense of the working class in both countries. Even as Washington committed itself to providing annual military aid to Taiwan, the tensions have only surfaced in the last 10 years as both China and the US have faced off against each other in the global markets.
As Washington upped the trade war with China, Taiwanese capitalism has begun to realign itself economically, resulting in a 50 per cent decline in direct investment in China over the period from 2010-2019.
The current fortunes of the billionaire capitalists in Taiwan were acquired from the sweat and blood of the Taiwanese masses during the White Terror of the Kuomintang. That regime came to an end in large part due to the struggles of working people, particularly the textile and railway workers, during the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, the bourgeois nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, has sought to trap the working class in a false divide between either Chinese domination or independence.
With Beijing warning of a potential invasion, accompanied by threats of wholesale “re-education”, it is entirely understandable that the Taiwanese masses reject unification with China and would massively resist any military intervention. Having witnessed the treatment of national minorities in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, as well as the crushing of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the workers and youth of Taiwan are only too aware of what capitalist unification with China would mean. The current retaliation by Beijing and its criminalisation of Taiwanese nationalist leaders is merely a foretaste of this.
The Taiwanese workers' movement itself has not long emerged from such totalitarian rule and is using its freshly won democratic rights to fight against a new offensive by their rulers.
A clear example of this was the resistance to the 2017 amendment to the Labour Standards Act. This extended the working ‘week’ from six to twelve consecutive days whilst also lengthening the working day itself and reducing rest periods. The mass protests, involving tens of thousands of workers and youth, were the largest Taiwan had seen in a generation.
They were not powerful enough to stop the measures being adopted but they did expose the profound class exploitation that exists within Taiwan, and which both the Kuomintang and the DPP are servants of. It also confirmed the emergence on a broad scale of independent trades unions that are no longer under the tutelage of either of the ruling parties.
In the face of the bellicose threats of intervention, blockade and sanctions by Beijing, Taiwanese workers will inevitably feel threatened and can legitimately demand the right and the means to defend themselves. The challenge they face is to do that independently of either the pro-China Kuomintang, or with the nationalist wing of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie which favours a closer alliance with US imperialism.
The escalating assault on China’s oppressed nationalities is an integral part of a broader attack on the rights and living standards of working people across China, where millions of peasants have been uprooted from their land and forced into low-paid, intensive labour at the service of China’s new bourgeoisie.
To bolster this, Beijing has been waging a nationalist ideological offensive, in many ways mimicking the Trumpian banner of making China great again. Key elements of this discourse are described by the anti-capitalist write Au Yung Loo in his book, China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility.
“For the past ten years we have seen book after book and TV programme after programme glorifying past emperors, advocating Chinese chauvinism and anti-western thinking, or even outright social Darwinism.”
This longing for a great Han Chinese renaissance was perhaps expressed most clearly by the government adviser Professor Hu Angang of Tsinghua University. In an article published in the May 2019 edition of the Chinese publication Economic herald, Hu Angang argued the case for:
“pushing forward the mixing together into one of different nationalities in aspects including politics, economics, culture and society… We must strengthen the Chinese people’s consciousness of identity and uniformity… so as to achieve the great renaissance of the Chinese nation”
The nationalist discourse also coincides with a capitalist economy beset with a number of problems including an overall decline in growth, a real estate crisis marked by the dramatic fall of the property giant Evergrande and the seemingly unending search for a zero Covid solution. Added to the signs of increased unrest amongst the oppressed nationalities, it is clear why the ruling CCP is closing ranks around Xi Jinping and his increasingly ultra-nationalist rhetoric.
This rhetoric has nothing whatsoever in common with communism and the interests of the international working class. Rather, it expresses the outlook of an ascendant Chinese capitalist class which, like its predecessors in Europe and America, is ruthlessly pursuing a path of expansion and plunder. Of course, the context of the 21st century is quite different from that of the late 19th century when imperialism was in its infancy. However, as the war in Ukraine tells us, the new global rivalries are pregnant with potential armed conflicts and the dispute over Taiwan could well become one of them.
Whilst Taiwan is not an oppressed nation like Tibet, Xingiang and Inner Mongolia, working people have no interest in its annexation or domination by any of the rival powers. Alongside defending the right of self-determination for Tibet, Xiangiang and the oppressed people of Mongolia, we should unreservedly raise our voices to say Hands Off Taiwan. Let the people decide their own destiny!